Burn for Me Page 35

He touched his hand to his left ear. An earpiece. Didn’t see it before. His hair had hidden it. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“I have her.” He took his hand from his ear and looked at me. “Give me the gun.”

I wheezed, trying to suck some air. He wasn’t getting the gun from me. He would have to take it.

“Come on.” The old man held his hand under my right fist. “Just let it go. Be a good girl.”

No, I don’t think so.

The old man squeezed the cup and the wires tightened, cutting my throat. I tried to scream but managed a hoarse hiss instead.

“Always has to be the hard way, doesn’t it? Fine.” He reached over, on his toes. His hand closed over the barrel of the Kahr.

I dropped the gun and clamped my fingers on his wrist. Pain rolled down my shoulder, and I let it blossom into agony. The feathery lightning gripped him and the old man bent back, his spine rigid. His eyes rolled back in his head. Foam bubbled up at his mouth. I let go and he fell to his knees, landing facedown on the pavement.

The wires fell. I crashed to the ground, dug my nails at the metal noose around my neck, and pulled it loose. Air. Sweet, sweet air. Bright red stained my fingers. My blood. The wire must’ve cut me.

I had to move. The others were coming. I glanced up.

A silver sedan hurtled toward me through the air. I saw it with crystal clarity, every single detail plain, as if I were looking at an enormous HD image: the oblong headlights, the tinted windows, the shiny hood, the top of the car as it turned before crushing me. No time to run. No time for anything.

I’m dead.

I jerked my arms up in reflex.

The sedan froze six inches from my fingertips. It groaned, the metal twisting, and shot up and back, revealing Mad Rogan. He was incredibly, monumentally angry.

The car flew over him, aiming for the attackers. The woman in the sundress tried to dodge the sedan. It smashed into her, sweeping her from her feet.

I yanked the rest of the wires off my ankles and wrists and got up.

The sedan bounced on the woman’s body, screeched, scraping the asphalt, spun, and slapped the taller of the two men. He crashed down and the sedan rolled over him, pounding him flat. The vehicle bounced and flew at the third man, who was wearing a dark blue T-shirt. The man leaped up, like he had wings, and perched atop the sedan, standing on one foot, perfectly balanced.

“Are you okay?” Mad Rogan ground out.

“I’ll live,” I croaked and grabbed my gun.

The sedan jerked six feet into the air, rotating. The man ran over the spinning car as a lumberjack during a logrolling competition, leaped at the parked row of cars, and dashed toward us, running across the cars like they were solid ground.

I sighted him and squeezed the trigger. The windshield of the white truck to the right cracked. The bullet hit him dead center and ricocheted into the windshield. Lovely.

“A wind mage.” Mad Rogan clasped his hands together and jerked them apart. Two hoods flew off the nearest cars and flew at the mage. The aerokinetic dodged with room to spare, as graceful as a ballet dancer, and punched the air. Mad Rogan leapt right. A foot-long gap sliced the asphalt next to me. The second gap split the pavement two inches closer to Rogan’s foot. Holy shit.

The hoods shot back to us and hovered like shields.

Anything small would bounce off the wind mage. Anything heavier would be too slow to hit him. Catch-22.

Mad Rogan held out a chalk. “Draw an amplification circle around me.”

I grabbed the chalk. Amplification circle was magic 101. Small circle around the mage’s feet, larger circle around him, three sets of runes. I’d just never tried to draw one on the asphalt while a wind mage was throwing invisible air blades at us.

The hood directly in front of Rogan split with a screech. A bright red line swelled across his chest. He grimaced. The hoods spun around us, faster and faster.

I finished the smaller circle. It wasn’t perfect, but it was round.

Something pelted the hoods, sounding like hail. The mage couldn’t see us, but we couldn’t see him either.

I finished the second circle.

Another hail of air blades, this time from the right. The aerokinetic had us pinned.

I drew the runes out. “Done.”

A tiny puff of chalk escaped from the lines into the air. Rogan flexed, his arms bulging. A vein shook in his neck.

The hoods kept spinning. If I were a wind mage, I’d try to get a drop on us . . .

I looked up. A graceful figure soared above us in the sky.

“Up!” I yelled.

The aerokinetic raised his arms. We were wide open.

A Greyhound bus smashed into the wind mage. I caught a glimpse of him, pressed against the bus’ windshield like a bug, his eyes wild. The bus crashed into the pavement in front of the mall, sinking three feet into the ground but remaining half upright.

Mad Rogan smiled, like a smug cat who’d just gotten away with stealing something off the counter. “Wind mages. They’re all fancy dancing until you drop something heavy on them.”

I stared at the bus like an idiot, still holding the chalk in my fingers. A car tire was heavy. He had dropped a damn bus.

My wrists and ankles were bleeding. My knees too—I must’ve scraped myself trying to draw the circle. So far today I’d seen a woman almost die, I’d shot a person, I’d killed another person with my shockers, I’d been strung up on wires and almost crushed by a car, and now I was bleeding all over the place. If I could, I would punch today right in the face.

Bern’s black Civic pulled into the parking lot and swerved to avoid the bus.

Mad Rogan looked down at my chalk lines. “This is the lousiest circlework I’ve ever seen. Were you drawing with your eyes closed?”

That was it. I threw the chalk at him, got up, marched to the Civic, and got inside. “Drive, Bern. Please.”

To my cousin’s credit, he said nothing about the blood, the bus, or Mad Rogan. He stepped on the gas and drove straight home.

Chapter 12

Bern drove with steady surety, obeying all traffic laws and regulations. Leon and Arabella both had their learner permits. Five minutes in the car with one of them behind the wheel was enough to turn my hair white, but riding with Bern was completely stress free. He had made a simple calculation: the cost of a speeding ticket in Houston ranged from $165 to $300 and would bump up his insurance. He didn’t have $165 to spare.

Three cop cars, their sirens screaming, barreled down the opposite lane. Good. As far as I was concerned, Mad Rogan could deal with them and leave me the hell alone.

“Remember you told me about how the Great Chicago Fire wasn’t started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow? Your professor had some sort of alternative theory about it?”

Bern gave me a funny look. “Did you see the bus halfway in the ground?”

“I don’t want to talk about the bus.”

“Okay,” Bern said in a soothing voice. “We don’t have to talk about the bus. We can talk about the cow instead.”

“Is there any chance we could talk to your professor?”

“Professor Itou? Sure. I think he has office hours today. I’ll check when I get home. Why?”

“Something Harper said. She called Adam a glorified O’Reilly’s cow. I think she meant O’Leary.”

“She might have been using it figuratively,” he said.

“Sure, but I just want to tug on that string and see where it leads. It was so random and out of nowhere.”

“No problem, I’ll take care of it,” he said. “MII called. Twice. Sounded annoyed. They want you to call them back.”

Figured. House Pierce wasn’t happy about Adam setting an office tower on fire, so they likely leaned on Augustine Montgomery, and now he would lean on me. Crap rolled downhill.

I would have to call Augustine Montgomery. I wasn’t looking forward to it.

The cuts on my neck and wrists turned out to be shallow. Catalina helped me clean up and put Neosporin on them. I didn’t get much of a chance to recuperate. Bern came back with Professor Itou’s office hours, which were between two and four. I fixed my makeup and hair, put on a business suit—not one of my expensive ones but the simple middle-of-the-road grey—then we jumped into the car and drove to the University of Houston.

We found Professor Ian Itou in his office in the history department. He had someone with him, so we sat in the hallway, twiddling our thumbs. Students hurried back and forth, dragging their bags and overly caffeinated drinks. Everyone seemed so young. I wasn’t that much older, but for some reason I felt ancient. I was probably just tired.

Even when I was in college, people seemed young to me. I had a full-time job. For me, going to college meant get in, sit in class, turn my stuff in, and get out as soon as I could. I went to one fraternity party, and that was because I had a crush on the guy in my Criminal Justice Organization and Administration class. He had huge brown eyes and freakishly long eyelashes. Every time he blinked, it was an experience. We went on three dates, agreed that this was a bad idea, and parted ways. Eventually I ended up dating Kevin. He was a great guy, and he made my sophomore and junior years awesome. I was so comfortable with him. He just had this way of putting me at ease, and he almost never lied to me. We talked; we hung out; we had good sex and did all of the things that two young people in love usually did. I thought I would marry him. Not that he asked or I did, but back then I could see myself being married to him. It wasn’t a wildfire, high drama, heart-pounding-excitement kind of relationship. People started telling us we were like an old married couple three months after our first date. Kevin was just solid, like a rock. Being with him was so easy. No pressure.

My mother didn’t like him. She thought I was settling because Dad had died less than a year before and I wanted stable and normal. At the time it didn’t feel that way. Then, in our senior year, Kevin got accepted into a graduate program at CalTech. He invited me to move with him to Pasadena. I told him I couldn’t. My family was here, my business was here, and I couldn’t just abandon it all. He said he understood, but he couldn’t miss this opportunity. Neither one of us ended up being that upset about it. There was no ugly breakup, and there were no tears. I was bummed out about it for the first few weekends, and then I moved on. Kevin was in Seattle now, working for an engineering firm. He was married and he and his wife had twins six months ago. I had looked him up on Facebook. It made me a little sad, but mostly I was happy for him.

The point was that, while I was in college, I didn’t do all those typical things. I was never in a sorority. I didn’t belong to any clubs. If I came home at dawn, it was because there was some surveillance involved. People spoke about their college “experience,” and I really had no clue what it was all about.

I glanced at Bern. “Hey. You know, if you want to join a fraternity, you totally can.”

My cousin’s shaggy eyebrows crept up. He reached over and carefully put his hand on my forehead. Checking for fever. “I’m worried about you.”

I pushed his hand off. “I’m serious. I don’t want you to feel like you have to miss out on anything.”

He pointed at himself. “Programmer and cybermagician. We don’t join fraternities. We hide in our lairs in darkness and bloom under the glow of computer screens.”

“Like mushrooms?”

“Just like that. Except that mushrooms don’t bloom. They produce spores.”

The door to Professor Itou’s office opened and a girl with a dark ponytail walked out, waving a stack of papers. She glared at us. “He can take his B and shove it. A B! It was the best essay in the class!” She stomped down the hallway.

Bern caught the door before it closed. “Professor? I emailed you earlier?”

“Come on in,” a cheerful male voice called.

Professor Itou was about my height and about fifteen years older, athletic, with a compact, powerful build and hooded dark eyes. He seemed full of energy as he shook my hand and sat behind his desk, poised against a massive bookcase filled to the brink. His expression was cheerful.

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